Applying for U.K. Fellowships (Rhodes, Marshall)
When I was a senior in college, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship and a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree at Oxford. I won both, chose the Rhodes, and spent a fantastic two years pursuing a 2-year MSc by Research in Experimental Psychology at Oxford. Over the past few years, several people have reached out to me to get advice about applying for these scholarships. In an attempt to democratize the process a bit more, I’m sharing my general thoughts online. Of course, I don’t really know why I won, so take all this advice with a grain of salt, and definitely do a Google search to get other people’s reflections on their experiences and advice for the application process. My perspective will probably differ substantially from those of others. Here are some answers to questions multiple people have asked me.
Please note: This advice is largely aimed at U.S. students applying for these fellowships, though the Rhodes is open to all nationalities.
What is the Rhodes experience like?
It differs for everyone, but I’ll say for me, the Rhodes was an incredible opportunity to:
- Work with great mentors and gain some additional research experience before beginning a Ph.D. in the U.S.
- Relax, have a lot of fun, and think about what I wanted to do next, on both a practical and more philosophical level.
- Live in and travel around Europe for two years.
- Meet great people who are now some of my closest friends.
- Spend a huge proportion of my time just doing fun things with aforementioned people.
My time in the U.K. was exceptionally idyllic and I am deeply grateful for the experience. I found that my pace of life in Oxford was much slower than that of undergrad, in part because I deliberately tried to commit to as little as possible. This enabled me to take time to think about a lot of bigger questions —- What research am I actually interested in? What would the world look like if I found answers to the questions I aim to pursue? etc. —- that are easy to neglect thinking about in favor of day-to-day work that feels more pressing.
But let me also add what the Rhodes was not (at least for me):
- A ticket to the top of my chosen professional field.
- Validation to the extent that I no longer feel insecure about my abilities.
It seems almost silly to mention those “caveats,” but I do think those misconceptions persist and are important to clear up.
Should I apply?
If you want to be a future world leader but are unsure if you want to spend two years of your life studying at Oxford, think carefully before you apply. Most “successful” people in the world were not Rhodes Scholars, and if you no longer want to be in school, or have other exciting ideas for how to spend two years, you should consider pursuing those instead. First and foremost, the Rhodes is funding for an Oxford graduate degree.
If you have strong academic credentials and want to spend two years in Oxford but are unsure if you are a “future world leader,” apply anyway! Most people who win these fellowships are normal, thoughtful students. I certainly did very well in my undergraduate courses, but I didn’t do anything particularly exceptional. The selection committee is going to want to make sure you can get into and succeed at Oxford, and that you can thoughtfully reflect on the work you have done and the work you hope to do. If you would not be competitive for top graduate programs in your field, your chances of winning are slim, unless you really have done something else extraordinary (i.e., started a non-bullshit organization, published a well-received book, competed in the Olympics, etc.)
For reference, when I applied, besides having good grades, I:
- Had worked in a lab for two years and had submitted a first-author publication to a low-impact journal and a third-author publication to a mid-tier journal.
- Was in the process of helping to organize a small research conference on campus.
- Was part of a six-person team that oversaw the daily student newspaper, after having been a campus reporter and editor for two years.
- Participated in a smattering of other activities that I mentioned briefly but that weren’t very central to my college experience or fellowship application (was a high-school tutor for a year, helped freshmen figure out their schedules as an academic peer mentor, spent a year helping to edit a campus science magazine).
- Had close relationships with enough faculty members and mentors to get eight letters of recommendation, four to five of which were from people who knew me well and were invested in me winning. This is pretty important, and if I had to guess, played an outsized role in me winning.
What you might notice from this list is that I worked hard in college, but by no means did I do anything particularly unusual. This is true of most people who win. Every class has a couple of absolute superstars who really have done amazing things, and if you happen to apply in their district that year, that’s a bummer for you. I also didn’t really have anything on my resume that could be considered “physical activity” — most committees don’t really care about this anymore.
All of that sounds great to me and I want to apply! How can I boost my chances of winning?
First, I should point out that when you win, no one explicitly tells you why you won. My district took six hours to make their decision, so it is highly likely that some people on the panel were advocating for me, and some other people on the panel were trying to convince them that they should select someone else instead.
I do think the common denominator among most of my Rhodes friends is that everyone is really into what they do. It doesn’t matter what you do, but you need to convince people it’s super important and that you are deeply committed to it.
One thing I really liked about applying for Rhodes/Marshall is that you’re mostly competing against people from different fields or disciplines. That means that as much as you are selling yourself, you are also selling your area of interest, and your theory of how it can change the world (Yeah, it’s okay to be shamelessly idealistic). At my interview, for example, I was the only person doing cognitive neuroscience research. That meant that if I could make people super excited about the general line of work I was interested in, they would have to pick me, since no one else who was applying intended to pursue it. In the weeks leading up to my interview, I thought about the way my cognitive neuroscience professors and mentors talked about the field. After all, that’s what ultimately made me super excited about it. Then in my actual interview, I just tried to channel that. If you find that you have trouble communicating the central ideas of your research and interests to people outside your field, you should practice that a lot.
If you’re about to apply, remember:
- You’ve done 95% of the work already. If you have already received good grades, gotten involved in things outside of academics, and formed good relationships with some professors or mentors, then you’ve done the hard part. Again, if you haven’t done those things, you probably shouldn’t apply. This doesn’t mean you aren’t an awesome person with the potential to transform society in some cool way — it just means you don’t have the prerequisites the committees are looking for this particular opportunity.
- Your personal statement is really the only thing you have control of at this moment. This makes writing it incredibly stressful. I found that it was helpful to remember that my recommenders were each submitting letters about as long as my statement. On the one hand, I didn’t really have control over these letters. On the other hand, I found thinking about this took some of the pressure off the statement.
- Talk to the people writing your letters so that they are excited about the idea of you winning, and so that they can help you fill in any potential gaps in your application. I was worried that I had nothing that could be construed as a physical activity, so I asked some letter writers to specifically mention my “energy.” Did this actually help my application? I have no idea.
What about the Marshall Scholarship?
The Marshall and the Rhodes kind of sound like they are looking for different types of people, but they aren’t really. If you apply for the Rhodes becuase you are excited about studying at Oxford, you should absolutely apply for the Marshall. If you apply for the Marshall to go to Oxford, you should absolutely apply for the Rhodes.
The main difference between the scholarships is that the Marshall lets you go anywhere in the U.K., which is great if you don’t want to be at Oxford, but less great if you are at Oxford because it means there is a smaller community there.
The Marshall application also explicitly requires you to have thought about what you actually want to do in the U.K. I recommend thinking about this anyway, because it seems crazy to apply to spend two years doing something if you haven’t thought about what doing that thing looks like.
With the Marshall, you also need to list a second-choice university. At my interview, they explicitly asked me about why I wanted to attend my second choice. Be prepared to have a good explanation for both choices! I have no idea how often people actually end up at their second-choice school.
I applied and got an interview! Now what?
You should prepare a lot, mostly so that you can feel as confident and relaxed as possible going into it. I recommend looking at the list of recent scholars and reaching out to people to hear a couple of different perspectives on how to prepare and what types of things you might be asked — this is especially true if you don’t come from a university with lots of recent winners and binders full of interview notes for you to peruse. I recommend contacting current scholars in Oxford because they will be the ones who are most excited to talk to you and because they will be surrounded by others who can weigh in with their thoughts.
First, I would google U.K. fellowship advice to gain some other perspectives. You can also reach out to me directly. I can probably be more helpful if we have certain experiences in common (i.e. same field of study) and if you attend/attended a college or university without a well-oiled fellowship office.